Jailbreak. Thin Lizzy.
1976, Mercury Records. Producer: Jon Alcock.
Gift ca. 2003.
IN A NUTSHELL: A Classic Rock touchstone, featuring a song you’ve heard everywhere. Leader Phil Lynott writes stories about people searching and backs them up with powerful dual guitars. It’s another case of guitars, melody and drumming – the typical story for my favorite records. And nobody’s more surprised it’s in the top 70 than me!!
Have you ever taken on a “simple project” around the house? If you have, I’ll bet the initial idea you had1 was easily described in one simple sentence. “I’m going to clean out the garage.” No matter how cluttered and messy your garage is, you could easily conjure images in your head of “before” and “after” scenarios and imagine the work needed in between the two: “I’ll lug some stuff out, I’ll pack some stuff in boxes, I’ll put it all back inside, I’ll go drink a beer.” This is the stage of the project at which the wise folks among you will take a considered look the level of clutter in your garage and decide that the apparent quick, direct path to completion – “lug, pack, restore, beer” – is a fantasy, and just skip ahead to that beer.
In reality, the path to completion on virtually ANY project is never quick and direct. Using garage cleaning as an example, we’ll start with the “lugging” phase. Before you can lug that cardboard box of shopping cart wheels that you got for a dollar at that flea market – (Remember that feeling? “Don’t worry, honey! All these wheels for a dollar?! – I’ll make some fun things for the kids!”) – you’re going to have to take it off the top of that ugly dresser that your spouse got for free from the side of the road – (Remember that feeling? “You’re never going to refinish that thing! Who cares if it’s free, we don’t need it!”) – but to get close enough to the box you’ll have to lean across the old snowblower – the one you didn’t get rid of when you bought the “new snowblower” because “parts!” – and that means you won’t have the right angle to get your hands under the box of wheels, which – as you’ll recall from the near-disaster of placing the box on top of the old dresser – is REQUIRED because the packing tape holding the bottom of that box together is about 60% scuffed off the box, meaning that box is just waiting to vomit 23 two-pound wheels all over everything the moment it’s lifted. But you can’t move the old snowblower because it’s helping to stabilize the ugly dresser, so if it moves, the whole mess comes down.
You’re going to have to solve about 14 of these mensa-admission level logic problems, and do so within 30 minutes if you expect to have any shot of keeping this to a single-day project. And as you spelunk your way through the caverns of junk you’ve amassed over the years, it may be helpful for you to consider this: if your garage has this much crap in it, and it’s so poorly organized, what makes you think it’s worthwhile to even try to make a fresh start of it? This project is already a failure.
As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” And who can argue with that? The point is that just as the simple steps of “lug, pack, restore, beer” are a wild underestimation of the project of cleaning a garage, most personal projects are far more complex, and require many more decisions, than can adequately be planned out in one’s head, and therefore – as Burns so eloquently put it – gang aft agley2.
Take, for example, a hypothetical plan to … let’s say … listen to all of your CDs and then rank them and select the top hundred favorites to write about in a blog you’ll update regularly. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Let’s make it simpler by saying you have pretty many CDs, but by no means an exhaustive list of classic albums from the past 50 years, or the number that a typical audiophile would have. So maybe you have, say, 357 CDs. This is the point at which – again, if you were a wise individual – you would say to yourself, “Okay, that sounds like a good plan. I’ll get to it some day,” and then you’d go get that beer. Because this is a problem destined to gang aft agley.
The biggest agleying issue I’ve faced has been just how friggin’ long it takes for me to put together a goddam post!!! That’s due to two things: 1) I have a full time job and a family; and 2) I’m a windbag, with no editor.
The lengthy time to post causes a secondary, more abstract – yet possibly larger – problem: I finished listening to all my CDs in late 2013, so my list is stuck in time. I’ve bought a few records since then, some of which could be Top-100 level albums. But now that my list is complete, there’s no way to integrate these new records into it. If The Stooges’ Raw Power, which I recently got, would be, say #373, then each album lower than that would bump down one. Since I’m now writing #69, I’d have 30 albums on this website out of order. Additionally, my #100 is now #101, and so should be removed from the list. Listen, it’s taken me this long to get here, I can’t just suddenly decide to add MORE RECORDS to the project!!!
So I can’t add any new records – the list is “As-Of-January-2014,” and that’s just how it has to be. But there’s also a BIGGER issue with the list: it assumes that the decisions I made about each record were actually ACCURATE at the time I listened! Let’s take a quick look4 at the process I used for making my list.
I listened to my CDs in my car on my way traveling to and from work. I recognize factory-installed sound systems on 2007 Toyota Corollas aren’t exactly the highest fidelity, audiophile quality systems on which to hear music. However, I have a life. I couldn’t spend 25-grand on state-of-the-art sonic accessories5, quit my job and sequester myself away from my family for six months while I worked on my artistic masterpiece6. Besides, my car is where I hear most music anyway, and this method leveled the playing field for comparing music by ensuring they’d all be heard on the same lousy system.
I selected CDs randomly and listened to each only once (again, I have a life), gave it a rating of one through five, and jotted a few notes about what I liked. That’s not a lot of information upon which to build a serious case for the merits of one album vs. others. So that’s a source of error.
But the biggest source of error in my evaluation of my records was the algorithm I developed for translating my 5-points-plus-notes evaluation system into a measure of “Favorite.” The algorithm is this: I just sort of went with what I felt. Because here’s the thing: I wasn’t trying to find the BEST, I was trying to find my FAVORITES. There were a few records that I recognized as excellent works of artistic vision and inherent merit that just, you know, didn’t do it for me. Then there were records that I recognized were probably not going to wind up on many critics’ lists that I just LOVED! There were a few records I’d rarely listened to that blew my socks off in that one listen. But it’s hard to make a case that a record I’d heard once or twice should be considered a “favorite.” It was a struggle, and I spent a few weeks arranging and rearranging the albums into what I hoped was the most precise list possible.
Until – at a certain point – I decided: Who gives a shit? It’s a fucking made up list of pop records that a few dozen friends are pretending to read! And so I didn’t put more thought into it. There are bound to be records misplaced throughout the list, right? I don’t listen to the albums again until I’m ready to write about them, at which time I get a chance to confirm whether I still agree with placement.
The biggest placement error on the list so far has been The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, which landed at the rather lowly level of number 95. I’ve listened to that record a lot in the time since I published the post and it has certainly climbed my list of favorites since then. I’m guessing it would now fall somewhere in the top 35 … but there’s nothing I can do about it now. True, it sucks, and I’ve been in a back and forth with The Rolling Stones’ lawyers about it, but as I’ve explained in several phone calls with Mick and Charlie7 the list is set.
Number 69 on my list, the excellent Jailbreak, by vastly under-appreciated Irish rockers Thin Lizzy, is probably my next biggest mistake. But their lawyers won’t be contacting me: you see, I think this one should be lower on the list – maybe in the 90s, or even in the dreaded “Buffalo Bill Near-Miss List” of record numbers 101-110. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t great!
Thin Lizzy is a band whose name I knew before I ever knew any of their songs. They’re one of those 70s bands with a distinctive, stylized script logo that I’d often seen sewn onto the denim jackets of some of the scary rocker kids around my town. I didn’t know that I knew one of their songs until sometime in Middle School when I realized they sang the catchy, oft-played 70s rocker “The Boys Are Back in Town8.” That song always sounded Southern Rock to me, and so I just figured they were a bunch of white guys from Alabama or Florida or some other place I’d never live in a million years making kickass double-guitar boogie rock. I was quite surprised to learn sometime later that they’re actually Irish, and led by an Irish black man, Phil Lynott.
Phil Lynott played bass guitar and sang for Thin Lizzy, and he wrote most of the songs as well. I watched a documentary about the band, and he seems to have been a quintessential sad, brilliant artist. His reputation in Ireland is immense, and he is held in esteem there as “Ireland’s First Rock Star.” I didn’t know any of this information when I heard their songs on the radio. AOR radio used to play the songs “The Boys are Back In Town” and “Jail Break” in the 70s and 80s, but given Scary Rocker Kids‘ love of them, I always figured they were some metal band9. I got the first inkling that I may be interested in them when I lived with my punk rock friend Eric, and I noticed he owned a copy of Jailbreak. At some point in the 2000s, the band I’ve played in since the late 80s, JB and The So-Called Cells – featuring the phenomenal Dr. Dave on lead guitar – decided to play “The Boys are Back in Town,” and Dr. Dave loaned me the CD so I could learn my part. I listened to the other songs as well and thought, “this is a great friggin’ record!!”
I didn’t listen to it much in the next several years, but when it came time to work on this project, I duly pulled it from its sleeve in one of my nerd-binders full of CDs and brought it to the Corolla for an official listen. In that one listen, I was blown away. I don’t know if it was the traffic that day, the weather, the blend of the morning’s coffee, or what, but after one listen I gave it exceptionally high marks. But when it came time to look at all my ratings of all my records, and compare them with each other, I realized that I didn’t remember much about Jailbreak. As highly as I had rated it – a rating that may have landed it in the top 20 based on number and comments alone – when I looked at it next to some other albums I loved, I just couldn’t justify placing it so high up on the list. When everything shook out, it landed here at 69. So there you are.
And it is definitely the kind of music I tend to really like! Jailbreak is full of dual-guitar majesty, fantastic drumming, and strong melodies – confirming yet again that guitar, drums and melody are the way to my musical heart. The album opens with the riff-rocker title track, “Jailbreak.”
The standard M.O. for 70s hard rock songwriting is on display, and it’s a fine, fine example. Led Zeppelin were masters of it; AC/DC has made a 45 year career out of it. Aerosmith, too. It’s a two-step process: 1) take a cool-sounding guitar riff; and 2) build a song around it. What makes this one interesting are the little things happening around the riff. For example, a lot of cool wah-wah guitar – first heard right around the 15 second mark. And the drumming by Brian Downey, with lots of fills and hi-hat flourishes, and techniques that aren’t flashy but are kind of mind-blowing on repeated listens – like the fill around 43 seconds to lead into the first chorus. Lynott has a distinctive, growly voice and he uses it well throughout the song and the album. In this song, as in many on the album, he takes on the persona of a character and describes his circumstances. The tale of breaking out of prison is one that connected strongly with teens in the 70s – and probably of any era. There’s a nifty instrumental breakdown starting at about 2:13 that sounds like the rock band version of a jailbreak – even without the sirens that are added to the track. It’s a strong, very cool opener on this underrated album.
The biggest draw for me about the album may be the twin guitars played by Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. One of the best examples of their cool-sounding interplay is the song “Angel From the Coast.”
“Dual guitars” in classic guitar rock, as heard in bands from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Judas Priest, are typically featured two ways: 1) playing the same riff, but in harmony; or 2) playing two separate parts. Gorham and Robertson do both throughout the record. On “Angel From the Coast” one riff starts off the song, and the second guitar comes in at 7 seconds with a separate counter-riff. Later, around 1:26, their harmony work is featured in a guitar solo (duet?), which by 1:42 turns into a true back-and-forth between guitars. They sound great together, like they’re having fun playing off one another, before they dive back into the opening riffs. Anytime a band features two guitars doing things like this, I’m going to give them a good, long listen – as will others: I think noted guitarist and former cover-band player Eddie Van Halen may have lifted the main riff for one of his songs. Lynott’s voice is rocking as ever on (dare I say? Bob Dylan-esque) lyrics with sad imagery of desperate people. This Angel From the Coast appears to be a heroin shipment.
The band’s most famous song, “The Boys are Back in Town,” also features excellent dual-guitar interplay, along with some excellent bass work by Lynott.
I think this song warrants its place as a 70s hard rock mainstay, still heard and played in 2016. It’s a cool sounding jam, and its lyrics are in the typical Phil Lynott style – taking the point of view of someone and telling a tale. What I find interesting about the narrator in this case is that he’s apart from the action, describing someone else’s deeds. One gets the feeling that the narrator isn’t really part of the gang of boys who are coming back to town this summer, but just a local admirer. I’ve heard rumors that the song is about Viet Nam vets returning home, but I’ve also heard Lynott wrote it about the band’s rowdy fans. Either way, it’s a song that’s established itself in popular culture to a degree that could easily sour it for some people. but the fact it’s been overplayed doesn’t change the fact that it’s an excellent song!
Lynott’s storytelling lyrics are also on display in the softer, slightly jazzy “Romeo and the Lonely Girl.”
I particularly enjoy Brian Downey’s drumming on this song, which features his tight rolls and distinctive fills. Also, there’s a terrific guitar solo that I’m not sure which of the stellar guitarists plays. Another bouncy, less rock and roll song is the breezy “Running Back,” which is not about Walter Payton or Jim Brown, but is a musician’s lament of leaving love behind to hit the road. It’s a song direct from the 70s, with a chill electric piano and a blaring sax solo which – to my ears – really neuter a potentially great rock number. Another soft number, albeit with great, subtle guitar work from Gorham and Robertson, is “Fight or Fall,” a call for unity in the vein of The Youngbloods’ 60s hit “Get Together.” The rocker “Emerald” is a shout out to the ancient tribes of Ireland, and “Warriors” is a boastful 70s riff-rocker. The album shows that Lynott was a versatile talent, a songwriter with a knack for melody and lyrics, and also a terrific bass player and singer.
Thin Lizzy was a great band, and Jailbreak would have been a very good record with just those songs I’ve listed. But what I think inspired me to rate it so highly is “Cowboy Song,” one of my all-time favorite songs. I don’t know if it’s the great riff – played in harmony by both guitars and bass – or the sad Desperado lyrics, but something about this song connects with me.
If you click on that video, be sure to listen at least well past the 44 second mark, the point at which the song’s riff starts. It’s a simple musical figure, but it’s super-catchy and has a yearning quality that suits the wanderer’s perspective of the lyrics. Lynott’s voice is expressive, and there’s a tinge of sadness – he clearly relates to roaming the land, taking whatever gigs he can find, while he searches for that woman he once knew. It’s a song I could listen to on repeat, a song I’d likely place on a CD to take on a deserted island. It’s a song that speaks to me loudly enough to bump a very good album up to a top 70 album!
So, look. We all make mistakes in life. But we don’t have to regret all our mistakes. I love Jailbreak, and I’ll keep listening to it. Ranking it at #69 may have been an error, but it’s certainly better than dropping a box of shopping cart wheels on a snowblower. And how many mistakes in life can we say that about??
Angel From The Coast
Romeo and the Lonely Girl
The Boys are Back in Town
Fight or Fall